Tech doesn’t solve all school safety concerns

By: | December 11, 2017

How can administrators prepare staff with best practices and reasonable emergency plans? How can you communicate safety to your parents in a social media world on digital steroids?

Bomb threats sent to teachers through an international proxy server. Computer-generated shooting threats called in to your school office. An irate parent with a gun reportedly headed to your school. A chemical spill at a nearby factory.

How can administrators prepare staff with best practices and reasonable emergency plans? How can you communicate safety to your parents in a social media world on digital steroids?

Don’t lose sight of the big picture

As school safety issues move from schoolhouses to courthouses and courts of public opinion, school leaders often struggle to distinguish between fads and best practices. Media attention may dwell upon active shooters, but your school’s bigger safety threat may be a non-custodial parent abduction or a hazardous material spill on a highway near campus.

The risks can be considered along a continuum. Routine disciplinary misbehaviors, verbal aggression, bullying, and fighting may be more likely threats to your school. Weather and natural disasters, bomb and shooting threats, weapons incidents and other higher-impact challenges present less likely, but still possible, dangers.

School safety and emergency preparedness planning can also be viewed on a continuum. Prevention programs, student intervention supports and professional development must be parts of preparedness efforts.

Security equipment and hardware, tabletop exercises, emergency drills and participation in full-scale exercises—including those focusing on active shooters—may also be on that expanding continuum.

Balance hardware with people

As an expert witness in school safety litigation, it is not uncommon for me to see wrongful deaths, serious injuries from violent assaults, sexual assaults and other cases. School safety lawsuits typically involve allegations of failures of people and procedures—not alleged failures of security equipment and hardware.

It is those procedural perfect storms and cascading human errors that often come into question after an incident. Security equipment and hardware play a role in school safety, but they should not be substitutes for a comprehensive safety strategy.

It is a lot harder to show parents your effective, but less visible, strategies like staff training, emergency drills or planning activities with crisis teams and first responders.

Focus on fundamentals

Time, not just more money, is needed for meaningful school safety and emergency preparedness planning. Administrators can focus on practical safety fundamentals such as:

  • Student supervision. Discuss supervision with teachers and support staff. Talk about supervision at drop-off and pick-up areas, in hallways during class changes, in restrooms and stairwells, during breakfast and lunch periods, and in other common areas and hot spots.
  • Diversify drills. Conduct lockdown drills during lunch periods, between classes or as students arrive in the morning. Use reverse fire drills to time how quickly students and staff return inside after exiting the school. Block an exit, without announcing it to students and staff, to see how they would respond under different conditions.
  • Plan for evacuations and extended sheltering in place. Identify walking distance to various evacuation sites. Visit those sites and plan how you would set up operations in an emergency.
  • Practice the “five-minute rule.” Take five minutes at the end of each faculty or cabinet meeting to discuss one aspect of your emergency plans. Create a culture of regular safety conversations.
  • Create and test crisis communications plans. Parent-notification mechanisms, media-response plans and social media strategies are a part of many school preparedness measures today.

Ken Trump (ken@schoolsecurity. org) is the president of National School Safety and Security Services.

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